Disabled and Elderly Living on the Edge

California's second most expensive health and human services program, Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, was designed to help the elderly and disabled afford basic necessities. But for many older Californians it's not meeting that goal.

In the first of our two-part series, Senior Insecurity, we'll look at how the deepest state budget cuts to SSI in a decade have impacted older disabled Californians. A growing number of them can't afford enough food or are living on the streets. 


In 1974 President Richard Nixon signed off on the federal program called Supplemental Security Income…or SSI. It provided a set amount of money for low-income disabled and elderly to use for food or housing. States, like California, had the option to chip in extra money to the program to offset the high cost of living. But today many older Californians say even with these checks they can barely get by. 

Getting Enough to Eat

Sixty-one-year-old Tina Reidinger lives in a small apartment in downtown Sacramento. For the last 15 years Reidinger has been getting an SSI check. She has severe mental illness. 

“They said I was definitely disabled and there was no way I could ever hold a job again.”

Her check is her sole income. But she says it’s barely enough to buy food. Reidinger eats just one meal a day provided by Meals on Wheels. 

“She doesn’t eat beans, but that’s practically all you can get for free…”

Her daughter, Ruth Roscom, helps with chores and when she can brings food over.  

Reidinger: “Ruth what is this? You bought me chicken breasts?! Oh my god baby, oh look at that…thank you baby”

In the last year the state has cut Reidinger’s check by $25 a month. She now gets $845 a month. 

“I have nightmares a lot at night mostly about just things getting worse…I’ve even looked to see how much a tent would cost me, you know, it’s bad dreams, I dream about being homeless.”

Living Homeless

That nightmare has already come true for many poor, disabled seniors, according to a survey released last year by the non-profit Shelter Partnership in Los Angeles.  

The New Image Emergency Shelter was the focus of the survey. It houses more than 500 people a night in a converted warehouse on the edge of downtown Los Angeles. The survey found more than a third of clients here who were seniors got SSI checks. Jim Ebert is the shelter’s program director.

“We have noticed that more seniors are coming to the shelter in need of different items that they wouldn’t ever have come to the shelter and asked for, like additional food, clothing, we were never seeing this to the numbers that we are today, prior to these cuts.”

People cram into the stifling warehouse on army cots each night.  Ebert says it’s no place for seniors. But he says many will tough it out so they don’t burden their families.

“It wouldn’t be unusual for a senior to be living here, go to visit their family members once or twice a year and not have any idea they’re sleeping in a homeless shelter.”

The New Image shelter closes each morning. And then these seniors are bused off to an area with food banks about four miles away.  

The seniors – some holding canes, others in wheelchairs – dodge piles of trash. People are smoking crack in broad daylight, as the New Image security guard with me points out.

“This is exactly Skid Row, what we’re famous for in downtown L.A.”

Raymond Huskey is 68. Huskey used to work as a truck driver and had a small apartment. But he says after he stopped working his SSI check wasn’t enough to cover rent. 

“You struggle every moment, every day, sometimes you have to be overnight out there in the streets, or maybe find a car or some other building or some other place.”

State Budget Crisis

Just over a million Californians get SSI checks. And more than half of recipients are over 55. John Wagner is the director of the California Department of Social Services, which runs the state’s portion of SSI. The program costs California about $3 billion a year. Wagner says cuts were necessary and will save more than $700 million this fiscal year.

“If California doesn’t address these budget challenges we will be here for year after year after year after year looking at additional painful decisions.”

But critics say the problem with SSI is bigger than just the budget crisis. They say the program is running on autopilot. And that can lead to waste and abuse. We’ll hear more in tomorrow’s story.


This series was part of a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.



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